By the numbers

Commercial crabbing licenses:

2010

Total licenses 368

Nonresident 14

2011

Total 357

Nonresident 12

2012

Total 393

Nonresident 18

2013

Total 397

Nonresident 12

Cost of license

$50 resident (including $25 for 50 traps)

$425 nonresident (including $125 for 50 traps)

Additional traps

$1 per trap resident

$5 nonresident

Source: S.C. Department of Natural Resources

Its sweet taste makes the blue crab one of the Lowcountry's more sought after delicacies - and might be about to make it gone.

The crabs used to be caught commercially a dozen or more per trap. Now crabbers are lucky to pull up three or four at a time. Yet there are more crabbers and crab traps out there than long-timers have seen before, they say.

The reason is simple: $100 per bushel. That's the price for the best of the crabs because the fishery is declining all along the East Coast - partly from overfishing.

Crab traps, or pots, now line the narrow brackish water band in the Lowcountry estuaries where the shellfish can be harvested.

And that has some crabbers, environmental managers and others alarmed that the crab could be all but wiped out.

"You can (almost) walk across the pots on the Intracoastal (Waterway). It's completely out of control. Some way or another we have to get a handle on this, or we're going to collapse like they did up in the Chesapeake," said seafood dealer Paul Godbout, talking about the 1990 crisis that bay crabbers struggle to recover from.

"It's a concern generally speaking. Population declines; price increases. That's a downward spiral that could lead to an overfishing problem," said David Whitaker, assistant deputy director with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources Marine Resources Division.

But little is being done about it. Any proposal to limit licenses would have to be approved by the state Legislature, generally resistant to new regulations.

"It's like shrimp baiting," said former DNR Marine Advisory Board member Jenks Mikell, of Edisto Island, referring to the controversial but popular recreational shrimping practice some say depletes the fishery. "You say (limit) it, and good God - they run for the hills."

The crab population here already was in slow decline a decade ago when the catch nose-dived as drought shrunk the river flow. Saltwater crept farther in, moving the surviving crabs upstream beyond the commercial fishing line. Crabbers crammed together in the few remaining "sweet spots."

Tempers flared. Crabs were stolen from pots, retrieval lines were cut. It recalled the old "crab war" days when crabbers carried shotguns and the competition was bullied out of prime spots.

DNR could not immediately provide the number of crabbing licenses issued so far in 2014, or traps permitted for the past four years. But license numbers rose by 40 to nearly 400 from 2011 to 2013. A trap permit purchased with the license entitles its holder to 50 crab traps; additional traps can be bought for a modest fee, $1 per trap for residents.

So far, the situation doesn't appear to be "any worse than it has been," said Capt. Robert McCullough, of DNR law enforcement. But the mood is getting tense, at least. Despite the drought easing, crabbers still are piling traps into the few prime areas to find more crabs.

"There's an awful lot more traps out there, myself included. I have a couple hundred additional traps than previous years," said James Island crabber Fred Dockery. "Where we are getting them we're packed in so thick that nobody is catching many. Which makes the price go up, which makes us try harder," he said.

DNR and other marine researchers have been studying the decline, trying to find ways to stem it. Any number of factors are contributing to it, such as disease, salinity fluctuations and predation. But the one constant has been the demand for crab, particularly peelers, or soft-shell crab.

In the drought years at the turn of the century, DNR proposed limiting numbers of both commercial and recreational licenses but didn't follow through. The DNR advisory board worked five or six years on that 2005 proposal, Mikell said, "with committee after committee after committee, coming up with blue crab legislation that both recreational and commercial crabbers could live with. But DNR went back to the drawing board."

A few states have moved toward tighter controls. As part of broader fishing license "retirement" program, Texas has bought back more than 60 commercial crabbing licenses at a cost approaching $2 million - about 20 percent of its licenses, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife. Virginia just reduced its female crab harvest 10 percent for a year starting in July.

On the South Carolina coast, catch numbers have appeared to be recovering since the drought broke, although they dropped again in 2013.

"We're not recovered to where we were before the drought. I don't think we're fully recovered, we're recovering," said Whitaker, of DNR.

Meanwhile, former crabber Jason Dunn recently gave it up, despite that $100 per bushel paycheck. He'd had enough of battling for turf to find a handful of crabs when he pulled up the trap.

"It's becoming not a sustainable resource anymore," he said.

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